Norway's symphonic black metal icons Dimmu Borgir have undergone some major shakeups over the past year or so – most notably the departure of bassist/co-vocalist ICS Vortex and keyboardist Mustis (apparently on less-than-pleasant terms), whittling the team down to the trio of frontman Shagrath and guitarists Silenoz and Galder. Some metal fans feared the band would be unable to survive such a major loss of personnel, but they somehow managed to soldier on as a trio, soon embarking on a hugely ambitious follow-up to their highly acclaimed 2007 album In Sorte Diaboli. The result, entitled Abrahadabra, finally made its North American debut this month, and I decided it was time to find out if Dimmu's unique brand of epic-scale evil is still intact. Turn the page to find out what I discovered... (this is a pretty massive album, so be prepared to hang out for a while!)
Dimmu Borgir is well-known for stepping far away from black metal's DIY traditions (namely low-fi production and emphasis on technicality) in favor of huge theatrics, elaborate costumes & artwork and grand-scale production – and with each new album they seem to push that larger-than-death image up another notch or two. After that personnel split last year, it seemed inevitable that the band must either move onward and upward or dissolve altogether, and they obviously went for option #1. Many fans – myself included – were pretty skeptical, having considered Vortex's sweeping operatic tenor and Mustis's classically-trained keyboard stylings to be integral components of the band's colossal sound.
Amazingly, the current incarnation not only found a way to retain those elements, but made them even larger than before, by adding the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Choir to the mix. While they've used some live (as opposed to sampled) symphonic elements in the past – most notably on "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse," a track that made its way into the Hellboy movie trailer, among others – this is the first time the those elements are in place for the entire length of a Dimmu album. Those who already embraced that epic scope will not be disappointed, because Abrahadabra represents Dimmu Borgir at their most bombastic... and I'm going out on a limb here to call it their most interesting creative effort to date. Seriously, there are times during my first listen when I actually caught my breath in amazement.
The grandiose approach becomes instantly apparent with the instrumental opener "Xibir," which puts you into the realm of a big-screen dark fantasy blockbuster, beautifully weaving multiple vocal styles and elaborate apocalyptic orchestral passages in ways that trigger major goosebumps. The term "epic" is way overused in the music biz (and just about everywhere else, for that matter), but in this case, that word doesn't even begin to describe the mood created by this track. Evil riffage kicks us into "Born Treacherous," which sounds appropriately massive and sets the tone for most of the lyrical content on the record, which is all about tightly-connected layers: multiple vocal passes from Shagrath (demonic rasping in the center, with whispers at the far left/right) blend with tribal and traditional vocalists (including Siberian traditional throat-singing), and Silenoz & Galder's interlaced riffs are mirrored perfectly by coordinated orchestra stabs.
A few weeks back, we showed you the video for the second track – the album's first single "Gateways," and while it's a well-executed piece that falls in line with most of the band's recent singles, packing the video with incredible visuals (which reflect the band's new arctic-warrior look), the first contribution from guest vocalist Agnete Kjølsrud come off as way too shrill, failing to counter-balance Shagrath's coarse demon growl – something which Vortex's lush tenor did so effectively. On the upside though, there's a simple but sweetly evil chorus lead guitar from Galder, and the vocal harmonies in the finale (Kjølsrud included) are ominously cool. Take a moment and check it out for yourself:
Third comes "Chess with the Abyss," which kicks off with a gritty riff and races along at a more frantic pace with the orchestra sections sometimes moving in quadruple-time against the simpler guitar rhythms (kind of an interesting reversal from most symphonic metal), but when proper shredding is needed, it arrives without mercy. While the following track "Dimmu Borgir" is not the most memorable on the album (you'd think it would be, given its title), it still stakes out the band's musical turf pretty damn well. The choral chants and down-tempo riffs give the track the feel of a black mass processional, and the slow but smooth guitar line in the bridge creates a majestic sound. With its backwards vocal opening, "Ritualist" sounds like it's going the cliché route, but actually has some of the more interesting instrumental combinations – including acoustic guitars layered on top of the heavy riffs, fluttery flute passages and some otherworldly dancing keyboards. It also contains a strong clean vocal from Therion's Snowy Shaw... who was initially intended to be Dimmu's fourth member, but as you've heard by now, that didn't really pan out.
"The Demiurge Molecule" is driven along by an interesting old-school riff and features lots of jarring stops and starts, punctuated by plucked strings and whispered vocals. The overall feeling on this cut could best be described as "demoniacally heroic," with one of the album's grandest choruses, a brass-punctuated march sequence and a brief but cool guitar duet. "A Jewel Traced Through Coal" is another ritual-sounding entry, opening with glassy percussion and ghostly whispers before breaking into a breakneck tempo of tremolo guitar picking and furious blastbeats from drummer Daray (formerly of Vader), and never lets up for its five-minute length. You won't get a chance to breathe before "Renewal" cuts loose with another high-tempo burst of technically right riffage and a smooth lead guitar intro, setting the stage for Shagrath & Shaw's double-speed vocal blending; you can also hear Shaw's sweet rolling bass line most clearly in some of the breaks.
"Endings and Continuations" makes for a perfect summation of the album's dark cosmic arc, beginning with more throat-singing beneath Shagrath's Lovecraft-style spoken incantations and tearing into a powerful polyrhythmic explosion from band and orchestra alike. Multi-tracked guest vocals from Kristoffer Rygg (formerly of Borknagar) add an old-school metal touch to the proceedings, and a cool slide guitar from Chrome Division's Ricky Black provides an earthy texture. Acoustic guitar is again added in the final third, as Shagrath and the backing choir send us out with a chill by repeatedly chanting the album's title incantation, which is itself inspired by the occult practices of Aleister Crowley. An instrumental version of "Gateways" is included as a bonus cut, but actually serves well opposite "Xibir" to bookend the album and provides a perfect cinematic coda.
Speaking of cinema... as horror movie fans, we're all familiar with that great combination of relief and amazement that washes over us when a heavily-hyped movie surpasses our expectations and suspicions... and I got that exact same feeling listening to Abrahadabra. My concerns that the band might have lost their touch after such a major lineup change were immediately put to rest after listening to these tracks. Those who considered them "too mainstream" certainly won't be changing their minds, but those who love Dimmu for painting black metal's darkest colors onto a colossal canvas will be more than satisfied with this effort. My only remaining question is how the band will pull off such a grandiose presentation on the stage... and I hope to get my answer soon by seeing and hearing them in action during their upcoming "Darkness Reborn" tour.